Book Report: Citizens of London

Citizens of London, by Lynne Olson, is a revealing lesson in history, the sobering story of Britain's fight to hold off the Nazi war machine in World War II. The story highlights the savage hardships endured by the U.K. in general, and by the citizens of London in particular, during the brutal air attacks of the London Blitz. Olson puts the reader in the dreary apartments and dwellings of ordinary people, the people who had neither sufficient food nor heating for years, who had no thought of new clothes, or automobile transportation. But inside opulent clubs and restaurants, and black market supply chains, the power brokers lived lavishly in their upscale struggle to get desperately needed aid from a hesitant and divided America.

Olson employs three key Americans as the fulcrum of the story: John (Gil) Winant, the American Ambassador to the British Isles; Edward R. Murrow, the CBS radio war correspondent; and Averell Harriman, the wealthy industrialist who was named as Lend-Lease Coordinator and special presidential representative. These three men acted as bridges between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Franklin D.Roosevelt, the American president, and conveyed the bleak, on-the-ground atmosphere of wartime Britain. The U.K. was the last bastion of hope for millions of Europeans who escaped the onrushing German military, and was literally the only place left for any reasonable allied counter-offensive capability to fight back. Although the people displayed uncommon bravery, Britain came much closer to falling than American history books have indicated, and probably would have been suffocated by the German navy and air force, and then by Hitler's "Operation Sealion," the Invasion that would have followed a defeat of the RAF.

The book paints a frantic Churchill, playing every card, backed up by the urging of the three key Americans, in his attempt to convince FDR to enter the war. The President was extremely reluctant to do so, although he gradually moved American policy more and more into supporting the British prior to Pearl Harbor. U.S. policy, strongly isolationist, slowly ratcheted up to include providing protection for convoys (only part of the way, to Greenland), to supplying old and somewhat out of date destroyers (fifty of them), and supplies, but only on a "cash and carry" basis in the beginning, or in exchange for long term leases of British bases around the Commonwealth. The Lend-Lease deal, as originally structured, was a financial burden for the British, although the terms were softened somewhat later.

When the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered entered a two front war, in the Pacific as well as in Europe/Africa and the Atlantic. By that time, Hitler had attacked Russia, and Germany had deployed a huge part of their massive armies to the Eastern Front.

Churchill (wisely) and the British generals convinced President Roosevelt and the American military not to attempt an invasion of the continent at first, but to deploy the U.S. army in North Africa, where the forces could be tested and strengthened. It becomes clear that the invasion of France would not have been successful at that time.

The book leaves a palpable taste of life in London, both for the average citizens, as well as for the privileged and the Americans, who had money and could buy the best in terms of lodging, food, and alcohol. The social scene was a blur of booze and relationships for the "haves," and quite the opposite for most everyone else.

Most stories of history, in war as well as diplomacy and in business, are based on relationships, and this book lays out in a personal, vivid, and sometimes raw manner the way relationships, both at the highest professional levels, and on the human and personal planes, played crucial roles.

I happened to discuss this book with a woman who spent her early childhood in England before coming to the U.S. with her American husband. She related how she and her sister, one year older, were moved out of London, as were most children, and spent six years in the northern industrial city of Leeds. The sounds and fear of the German bombers still were vivid in her mind as she recalled hearing the air-raid sirens go off, followed by the drone of the aircraft motors approaching from the south, and then the inevitable crunches and explosions of the bombs striking, some far away, and others close. The children huddled in a home where two old-maid sisters, unrelated to them, agreed to take in the little girls, and cared for them. During that time, they saw their mother once and their father once, as his unit was moving past on their way to the front in North Africa.

The book leaves the reader with the frightening question of what would have happened if Germany had not attacked Russia, opening an second front for them in Europe, and instead of attacking the U.S., Japan would have attacked Russia from Russia's Far East? That would have allowed Germany to concentrate more on the bombing campaign over Britain, shore up the Italian campaign and bulk up the French defenses, and likely would have kept the U.S. out of the war, at least for a while. It would have been restricted the Communists since they now were fighting Japan, and would have prevented the political momentum in America for aiding Stalin's government. Not a few people think that Germany would have had the time and the military force to overwhelm Britain, and the U.S. might have had a very difficult time positioning our forces to enter the war against Hitler, since the only point of entry in that case would have been from North Africa. Historians have questioned the two key decisions: Germany attacking Russia; and Japan attacking the U.S., not Russia, as fundamental errors of strategy by the Axis.


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James Kennedy George, Jr (Jim George)
Author, Reunion, a novel about relationships.

Available via order on the Internet from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all other Internet retailers, as well as from any book store. In stock at several book stores, including Book People in Austin, Texas, Tamarack on the West Virginia Turnpike, and in Hearthside Books in Bluefield, West Virginia.

Several book clubs in Central Texas have read Reunion, and/or have selected the novel for the first half of 2013. The author will be glad to attend your book club for discussion and to answer questions regarding book and the publishing process. Contact him at <> for additional information and scheduling.


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